WASHINGTON -- January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and the Defense Department has teams who work year-round to combat these crimes worldwide.
The Human Exploitation Rescue Operative, or HERO, Child-Rescue Corps is a program developed by U.S. Special Operations Command, Warrior Care Program-Career Transition, the National Association to Protect Children and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Army Col. Kimberly Moros, chief of SOCOM's career transition initiatives.
"The HERO Child-Rescue Corps Program is designed for wounded, injured and ill transitioning service members and veterans who receive training in high-tech computer forensics and law enforcement skills to assist federal agents in the fight against online child sexual exploitation," she said. "Upon successful completion of the program, HERO interns will have the knowledge, skills and experience to apply for careers with federal, state and local police agencies and other organizations in the field of computer forensics."
Since 2013, more than 130 veterans and transitioning service members have entered the HERO program. Of the successful graduates, 74 have been offered careers in federal law enforcement and another 31 are in internships, Moros said.
"HEROs and HERO interns now make up over 25 percent of the Homeland Security computer forensics workforce," said Robert Kurtz, unit chief for HERO at Homeland Security Investigations.
"Human trafficking includes using force, fraud or coercion to compel a person to provide labor, services or sex. It's a violation of basic human rights," said Linda Dixon, DOD Combating Trafficking in Persons Office Program Manager. "Combating trafficking in persons is a duty that DOD takes seriously as we do in other situations that bring harm to our nation. It is a global concern, and our goal is to educate every member of DOD on how to recognize and report human trafficking in the U.S. as well as around the world."
The three most common forms of trafficking, according to DOD's Combating Trafficking in Persons office, are forced labor, sex trafficking, and child soldiering.
Moros said the idea behind the HERO Corps is a simple one.
"When it comes to hunting those who prey on the innocent, who better than our nation's most highly trained military veterans?" she said. "Much of today's human trafficking and child sexual exploitation is technology facilitated. Offenders utilize the internet and digital technologies to coordinate their activity, advertise, share information and hide evidence. HEROs receive training in counter-child exploitation as well as digital forensics and victim identification. And they are then embedded with federal law enforcement."
She said the HERO Child-Rescue Corps saves children in several ways. "As law enforcement first responders, they are at every crime scene, searching for critical clues that might provide evidence for an arrest or to find a victim," Moros said.
Back at the forensic lab, the HERO is the lead digital investigator, searching out clues that can lead to organized criminal rings, evidence of sexual assault or production of child abuse imagery, she said.
"In many cases, it has been the relentless focus and military mindset that has allowed HEROs to go beyond the digging that might be done in traditional law enforcement to find a victim," she added.
Kurtz said federal law enforcement is just beginning to track rescues. In 2016, Homeland Security Investigations identified and rescued 820 known child victims from sexual exploitation.
"But the real number is undoubtedly many times greater," Moros said. "As a major segment of the digital forensic workforce, and one especially dedicated to combating child sexual exploitation and trafficking, they [HEROs] have been instrumental in working hundreds of those cases."